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Literature: The Golden Key

The Golden Key is a 1996 fantasy novel written by three women: Jennifer Roberson, who penned the story's first act; Melanie Rawn, author of the book's second section, and Kate Elliott, who finished the work.

Set in what might loosely be described as an alternative Spain, the novel traces a family of painters who, by nature of their Gifts, can influence events around them. In the Grijalva family, the Gifted males are usually sterile and short-lived; the women, who may be gifted for painting, but not Gifted for the particular type of painting that alters what it portrays, are generally kept within the family to produce children. However, one woman per generation is official mistress to the ruling Duke, so that the family maintains its influence at Court. The story develops when a particularly Gifted and unscrupulous Grijalva painter named Sario finds a way to continue living through successive generations in order to paint a picture worthy of his immense talent. As the political and social climate changes, including revolutions in neighboring countries and democratic challenges to the ruling Dukes, the increasingly conservative Sario seeks to hold onto the past, and especially his first love, whom he has imprisoned in a painting.

Throughout the book, special emphasis is placed on iconography and a set of possibly Arabic/Moorish spells that bend events to the will of the painter. The connection between the ruling Dukes and the Grijalva family is shown to be more far-reaching and subtle than at first appears. The development in painting styles is used as a metaphor for political changes that mirror western European history, especially in France and Italy from 1500 to (say) 1820. The succession of paintings in the ducal gallery (which turns into the national gallery) is the lens through which we see the historical and personal events that make up this well-written, highly believable fantasy history.
This book contains examples of:
  • Artificial Human: Sario creates a magical double of a murdered princess at one point.
  • Art Initiates Life: Grijalvas with The Gift have the ability to affect people with paintings, from influencing their behavior to trapping them in it.
  • Betty and Veronica: Mechella and Tazia for Arrigo; Rohario and Sario for Eleyna.
  • Blessed with Suck: The Gifted limners are capable of changing reality with their paintings. However, they are sterile, prone to crippling diseases, and most of them die well before the age of fifty.
  • Body Surf: Sario does this a number of times throughout the book as part of his goal of staying alive long enough to paint a picture worthy of his gift. Unusually, the reason he switches is that the body he is currently inhabiting is usually too old, Sario having taken the then-young body and lived the life of the person with whom he switched into old age.
  • The Dark Arts
  • Deceptive Disciple: Sario to Il-Adib.
  • Driven to Suicide: Raimon, when he realizes that his plans for Sario have Gone Horribly Right.
  • Eye of Newt: Mixing his paints with various bodily fluids (saliva, tears, blood, "essence") allows Sario to perform his magic.
  • Fantastic Racism: The Grijalvas are denounced by the Church partly because of their "evil" practices, but mainly for carrying Tza'ab blood.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture
    • Tira Virte is, roughly, Renaissance Spain; Ghillas is France; the Tza'ab are Moors, and so on and so forth.
    • The church of the Mother and the Son is essentially Catholicism with some emphasis on pagan-flavored local costumes. They also have nuns. The Tza'ab religion is an obvious stand-in for Islam.
  • The Gift
  • Gratuitous Spanish
  • Gray Eyes: Sario is easily a type 2.
  • Incest Is Relative: The Grijalvas maintain The Gift by keeping it all in the family. They keep extensive records and make sure the participants are only distant relatives.
  • Insufferable Genius: Sario is the best artist there ever was, knows it and doesn't mind saying so.
  • Kissing Cousins: What Sario wants, though not what happens.
  • Mad Artist: Sario
  • The Magic Goes Away: Implied to be happening in the epilogue.
  • Phantom Zone Picture: Sario traps Saavedra in a picture when he discovers she's pregnant with the Duke's child.
  • Princess Classic: Mechella starts as one. She grows out of it.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: Rohario.
  • Shout-Out
    • Beatriz, a nun who researches peas and the hereditary basis of the Grijalva's Gift, is a shout-out to Gregor Mendel.
    • In the epilogue, there are fleeting mentions of some counterparts of real-life historical figures, straying into Alternate History territory.
  • Sinister Minister: Caterin Serrano.
  • Villain Protagonist: Sario again.
  • The Wise Prince: Alejandro becomes one.

Dragon StarMelanie RawnThe Exiles
A Game of ThronesWorld Fantasy AwardThe Sarantine Mosaic
Going Home to TeachLiterature of the 1990sGone Baby Gone
The Golden Dream of Carlo ChuchioFantasy LiteratureThe Gone-Away World

alternative title(s): The Golden Key
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